The UPND and President Hichilema are socially liberal political actors who place a special emphasis on economic liberalist. They are expected to break the PF’s populist hold over Zambian politics over the past 10 years.

Located in Southeast Africa, Zambia, officially the Republic of Zambia, is a country with a long history of political instability, civil wars, and foreign interference, much of this stemming from the country’s struggle for independence from colonial subjugation and the resulting disputes over land and power. Following colonial rule by the Portuguese and the British which lasted from the late 18th century to independence in 1964, Zambia’s political landscape has been dominated by a series of governments with ideologies ranging from socialism to third-way progressives and liberals.

The country’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, held office from 1964 to 1991 under the ranks of the United National Independence Party (UNIP). Following nearly 27 years of single party rule, Frederick Chiluba assumed the presidency following the 1991 general elections and his Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) won 125 of the 150 seats in the national assembly. Chiluba’s 10-year-long presidency was followed by Levy Mwanawasa in 2001, who eventually gave way to Rupiah Banda in the 2008 elections; both Mwanawasa and Banda also came from the ranks of the ruling MMD. The 2011 general election, however, ended the MMD’s 20-year-long dominance as The Patriotic Front (PF), a breakaway party of the MMD, emerged as the largest party in the National Assembly; its leader, Michael Sata, won the presidency with some 42 percent of total votes. Upon Sata’s death of an undisclosed illness in October 2014, the PF’s Edgar Lungu took office after securing some 48 percent of total votes in the 2015 election to serve the remainder Sata’s term. Lungu repeated a similar success in the 2016 general election and remained president until 2021, when The United Party for National Development’s (UPND) candidate, Hakainde Hichilema, secured some 59 percent of total votes in the election, becoming the country’s first president from the UPND ranks.

As the first president of an independent Zambia in 1964, Kaunda kicked off his presidency with a series of nationalist-socialist programmes designed to appeal to the disadvantaged masses. His government’s first reforms initiated were related to education and the economy. As part of the educational reforms, the country’s education system was overhauled: hundreds of thousands of parents were granted funds to cover their children’s school expenses, taxes were cut, and the University of Zambia was opened in 1966 (Achola, 2021). The Kaunda government also adopted a centralized, socialist economic program, as part of which the central authority assumed the sole responsibility for making economic decisions regarding the manufacturing and distribution of products. As part of the Mulungushi Reforms of April 1968, the government commenced a process of acquiring equity holdings in some of the key foreign-owned firms in the country, to be controlled by the Industrial Development Corporation (INDECO) (Thomas, 2014). In an attempt to justify such wide-scale economic reforms, Kaunda opted to frame them as Zambia’s assertion of economic independence: “It pains me to see that three-and-a-half years after independence, there is not a single Zambian-owned business on Cairo Road (Lusaka’s main thoroughfare). There is not even a resident expatriate business or a foreign controlled business or any businesses for that matter with a Zambian manager on Cairo Road,” he said during a speech in 1968, attempting to justify his reforms aimed at increasing indigenous control of the economy (Beveridge, 1974).

Despite its apparent socialist, populist lean, the Kaunda government maintained, in the long run, a moderate position. While some of the major firms, including mining corporations, ended up nationalized, the key banks remained foreign owned. Kaunda’s dreams for a socialist economy were eventually blown off course when Zambia was forced to end its so-called socialist National Development Plans in favour of a long-term economic plan enforced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the early 1970s.

The Kaunda regime was a highly centralized oppressive police state in which many state bodies were a party apparatus. Aside from the ruling UNIP, all opposition parties and actors were banned in Zambia following violence during the 1968 elections. With a new constitution passed in 1973, Zambia officially became a one-party state; candidates for the National Assembly had to be members of UNIP (Mushingeh, 1994). Surprising no one, Kaunda was declared the sole candidate for the presidency in the 1973 elections. Zambia’s one-party state system remained intact until the MMD’s Frederick Chiluba won the 1991 election in a landslide victory.

With the end of the one-party rule in 1991, the MMD became the dominant political party in Zambia. Chiluba remained president until January 2002. As he was constitutionally not allowed to run for a third term, his vice president, Levy Mwanawasa, became the MMD’s candidate in the 2001 elections. Mwanawasa remained in office until his death in August 2008. The MMD’s Rupiah Banda then won the 2008 snap election and remained in office for one term until he was defeated by the PF’s Michael Sata in the 2011 elections.

Throughout the 20 years of MMD rule, Zambian politics were frequently not populist. Many believed this was in contradiction with the fact that the MMD came into existence as a reaction to the establishment UNIP’s monopoly on power. It was therefore expected to harbour some broadly populist features, including leftist economic reforms, anti-corruption rhetoric, and the antithetical depiction of “the people” versus “the other.” However, MMD presidents often ended up at odds with popular demands from the masses. For instance, from the outset, the Chiluba government put forth an extensive economic reform package, including the large-scale privatization of many major state-owned industries (Chiluba, 1995). Throughout his time in office, Zambia experienced a significant free-market transformation. Among the most sensational reforms was the privatization of the country’s major mining company, Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines Limited (ZCCM Ltd) (Craig, 2001). Similarly, during the Mwanawasa era, Zambia continued to open to foreign investors, and also received a large amount of foreign aid and debt relief (The Economist, 2008). The Mwanawasa government also privatized the Konkola Copper Mines plc (KCM), one of Africa’s largest integrated copper producers.

The MMD’s period of governance ended when the PF’s Michael Sata defeated incumbent Rupiah Banda after campaigning on a wave of populist promises in the 2011 election. Sata won over 42 percent of total votes. The PF, for the first time in its history, emerged as the largest party in the National Assembly. As a social democratic party with a significant base of support from the youth and poor people in urban centres, the PF’s leadership openly employed populist rhetoric to appeal to the large, disadvantaged masses (Fraser, 2017). During his short presidency, Sata often blamed “imperialists, capitalist villains,” for the existing income inequality and the unequal sharing of the country’s mineral wealth. In 2008, he said he would revoke licences for foreign investors, including banks, financial institutions, mines, factories, farms, and petroleum companies, if they resisted his orders to give up at least a 25 percent stake in their companies (News 24, 2008). On numerous occasions, he also called for the deportation of Chinese investors whom he accused of taking jobs from Zambians (News 24, 2008).

Sata died somewhat mysteriously in 2014 and was briefly succeeded by Acting President Guy Scott (the first white politician to be president of a sub-Saharan African country since the end of apartheid in South Africa, in 1994). After just four months in office, Scott was succeeded by Edgar Lungu, who often employed populist rhetoric on matters ranging from the economy to LGBTQ+ issues. In 2015, he declared a “National Prayer Day” to unite all Zambians in the face of hardship and to prevent further economic decline. In 2019, he defended the existing laws to ban homosexuality during an interview, saying that “even animals don’t do it, so why should we be forced to do it? Because we want to be seen as smart, civilized and advanced and so on” (BBC News, 2019).

In August 2021, the UPND’s Hakainde Hichilema won the presidency after defeating the incumbent Lungu by winning over 59 percent of all votes. The UPND had participated in five previous elections; this was their first victory. As a social liberal political party with a special emphasis on economic liberalism, the UPND and President Hichilema are expected to break the PF’s populist bent, which has dominated the last 10 years of Zambian politics. From his very first day in office, Hichilema has promised constitutional, electoral, and economic reforms as well as a zero-tolerance approach to corruption. Only time will reveal whether he will be able to balance the fragile economy he inherited from Lungu or end up as a one-time electoral success.

October 12, 2021


— (2008). “Why Africa needs more cabbage.” The Economist. August 23, 2008. (accessed on September 29, 2021.)

— (2008). “Sata to help local investors.” October 15, 2008. (accessed on September 29, 2021.)

— (2019). “Zambia gay rights row: US ambassador ‘threatened’ over jailing of couple Published.” BBC News. December 2, 2019. (accessed on September 29, 2021.)

Achola, Paul P. W. (2021). “Implementing Educational Policies in Zambia.” World Bank Discussion: Papers Africa Technical Department Series.

Beveridge, Andrew A. (1974). “Economic Independence, Indigenization, and the African Businessman: Some Effects of Zambia’s Economic Reforms.” Beveridge African Studies Review, 17/3.

Chiluba, Frederick. (1995). Democracy: The Challenge of Change. University of Zambia Library.

Craig, John. (2001). “Putting Privatization into Practice: The Case of Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines Limited.” The Journal of Modern African Studies. 39/3. September 2001. 389-410.

Fraser, Alastair. (2017). “Postsocialisms-populism in Zambia,” International Political Science Review 38/4. September 2017. 456-472

Mushingeh, Chiponde. (1994). “Underrepresentative Democracy: One Party Rule in Zambia, 1973-1990.” Transafrican Journal of History. 23: 117-141.

Thomas, Philip A. (2014). “Zambian Economic Reforms.” Canadian Journal of African Studies. 2/1.


Geographic Location: Southern Africa, east of Angola, south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Area: 752,618 sq. km.

Regime: Presidential Republic

Population: 19,077,816 (July 2021 est.)

Ethnic Groups (2010 est.): Bemba 21%, Tonga 13.6%, Chewa 7.4%, Lozi 5.7%, Nsenga 5.3%, Tumbuka 4.4%, Ngoni 4%, Lala 3.1%, Kaonde 2.9%, Namwanga 2.8%, Lunda (north-western) 2.6%, Mambwe 2.5%, Luvale 2.2%, Lamba 2.1%, Ushi 1.9%, Lenje 1.6%, Bisa 1.6%, Mbunda 1.2%, other 13.8%, unspecified 0.4%

Languages (2010 est.): Bemba 33.4%, Nyanja 14.7%, Tonga 11.4%, Lozi 5.5%, Chewa 4.5%, Nsenga 2.9%, Tumbuka 2.5%, Lunda (north-western) 1.9%, Kaonde 1.8%, Lala 1.8%, Lamba 1.8%, English (official) 1.7%, Luvale 1.5%, Mambwe 1.3%, Namwanga 1.2%, Lenje 1.1%, Bisa 1%, other 9.7%, unspecified 0.2%

Religions (2010 est.): Protestant 75.3%, Roman Catholic 20.2%, other 2.7% (includes Muslim Buddhist, Hindu, and Baha’i), none 1.8% (2010 est.)

GDP (PPP): $63.417 Billion (2020)

GDP Per Capita (PPP): $1,305.06 (2019)

Socio-political Situation: Fragile

Main Populism Factors:

  • National socialism
  • Redistributionism
  • Homophobia
  • Anti-corruption
  • Left-wing populism

Regime’s Character: Pseudo Democracy

Score: 50/100


The Patriotic Front (PF)

Leader: Edgar Lungu

Ideology: Social democracy

Populism: Left wing

Position: 59/156 seats at National Assembly